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In 2015, OAR’s Board of Directors authorized funding for eight new applied autism research studies in 2016. These new grants, totaling $229,827, bring OAR’s total research funding to over $3.5 million since 2002. This is the fifth of eight previews to be featured in The OARacle this year.

Regulating their emotions is often a challenge for children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Poor emotion regulation may significantly impair daily functioning for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, preventing them from being able to successfully manage many activities children take for granted, from school recess and birthday parties to working in small groups and completing homework.

While there are interventions designed to target emotion regulation for older children and teens, there is a critical need for those same kinds of interventions for young children with ASD that can help to prevent long-term mental health issues.

An intervention program designed to do just that through training parents to use the interventions is the subject of a study by OAR-funded researcher Kristin Rispoli, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School Psychology Program at Michigan State University and a licensed psychologist. She hopes that the program, Regulation of Emotional Lability in Autism Spectrum Disorder through Caregiver Supports (ReLACS), will increase parents’ use of strategies to support emotion regulation and have a positive affect on the ability of young children with ASD to regulate their emotions.

She plans to recruit five parent-child pairs for the study from agencies and school districts in central Michigan. The children will be between the ages of 3 and 6 with an ASD diagnosis and no additional significant medical or psychiatric concerns. They must also exhibit behavior that is considered emotionally dysregulated, such as excessive/ pronounced crying or screaming, vocal/physical refusals, or outbursts in excess of age.


How ReLACS Will Work

ReLACS will incorporate evidence-based techniques for facilitating behavioral change and emotional regulation skills. Eight weekly sessions, each lasting approximately an hour, will be conducted in the family’s home with both the parent and child present. Families will also provide information on the success of the intervention three months after the sessions are completed.

The initial sessions of the intervention will include:

  • Mutual engagement in play
  • Prompting, modeling, and ignoring
  • Arranging the environment
  • Using feedback and visual supports
  • Using additional visual supports

To facilitate parents’ awareness of the function of dysregulation and guide strategy selection, remaining sessions will include:

  • Collecting behavioral data
  • Using data to identify appropriate interventions
  • Generalization and maintenance of supports

While the sessions will include some strategies implemented in other evidence-based parent training interventions, ReLACS is innovative in that it bridges basic engagement and behavior analytic techniques with focused strategies targeting emotional regulation.

Each session will include:

  • A review of the previous week’s session, strategy use, and Q&A with the parent
  • Parent-child interaction to observe how the parent uses the strategies and if the child can regulate his or her emotions
  • Instructions from the interventionist for the parent about the strategy to be learned
  • Demonstration of the strategy by the interventionist
  • Use of the strategy by the parent with coaching from the interventionist
  • Suggestions from the interventionist for how to use the strategy in daily routines
  • Goal setting for implementing the strategy

The sessions will be videotaped so they can be used to evaluate the intervention’s effectiveness. Trained coders will use the videotape to assess parents’ use of the strategies learned in the intervention and evaluate the children’s behavior.



The ReLACS program is cost-effective and increases access to treatment for children who may otherwise have to wait for treatment at centers or schools. ReLACS may also be able to increase the amount of treatment time since a parent has many more opportunities during a day to use the interventions learned through ReLACS.

Dr. Rispoli plans to provide recommendations on how current models of practice in parent training used in community agencies and educational settings may be adapted to include a focus on the development of children’s emotion regulation skills. She will also make recommendations based on the results of this study for how home-based practitioners, as well as practitioners who work with families in clinical and school settings, can support parents’ use of interactive strategies that foster regulated emotional functioning in their young children with ASD.

Parent training is an accessible, cost-effective mode of service delivery for children with ASD. ReLACS will be the first program to target emotion regulation in young children with ASD, providing a much-needed and cost-effective way to help parents give their children ways to control their emotions.